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Neil Armstrong; Learning from tragedy

To consider how humankind can learn from a terrible tragedy and move forward (SEAL theme 3: Keep on learning (motivation)).

by Gordon Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 3/4


To consider how humankind can learn from a terrible tragedy and move forward (SEAL theme 3: Keep on learning (motivation)).

Preparation and materials


  1. Ask if any of the staff present were alive in 1969.
    Ask if any remember the moon landings in 1969 and the early 1970s.
    Ask the students what they know of the moon landings – any relevant names or events (they may know something about Apollo 13 from the film of that name).
  2. Neil Armstrong is one of the most famous people of the twentieth century and it has been suggested that his is one of the few names from our era that will be remembered for thousands of years.

    Armstrong himself is a modest person who always stresses that landing on the moon was a team effort. He always talks of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. He is keen to give credit to his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, and all the astronauts and Russian cosmonauts and the thousands of other workers who brought about the spaceflight breakthroughs that made the landing possible.
  3. Show the clip and briefly recap the details:

    Apollo 1 was a ground-based test.

    On 27 January 1967, astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee died in a fire during a launch pad test. This was a terrible tragedy but gave the Apollo programme a chance to learn what went wrong and rethink the design.
  4. Point out that it may seem strange to talk of the death of colleagues and then suggest a ‘silver lining’, but Armstrong and the other astronauts were test pilots, living daily with the possibility of death and injury. No astronaut wanted to die, but all the astronauts had no doubt that if they did have an accident, even a fatal one, they wanted the project to learn from it and go forward to success.

    Point out that many people think that without the redesign that followed the accident, the lunar programme would not have succeeded.
  5. Sometimes our world seems full of tragedy. (Mention any relevant recent stories or talk in general of terrorism, war and natural disasters.)

    We can also be overwhelmed by personal tragedies or sometimes by an accumulation of things going wrong in our lives. It can seem as though disaster follows disaster and you may feel like saying, ‘everything is against me’.
  6. The old words in the Jewish book of Ecclesiastes can help by reminding us that there is:

         A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
         a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

    It is important to mourn, to grieve, to remember our sadness, but when the time is right it is up to us to understand how to move from weeping to laughter. We can all take the opportunity to learn from tragedy and move forward, like Neil Armstrong and everyone on the Apollo programme close to 50 years ago.

Time for reflection

     There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

     a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

How can we move from one to the other and how can we learn from the difficulties and setbacks we face?


‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ by Richard Strauss is the well-known music that was used for 2001: A Space Odyssey

‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie

(Both are widely available to download.)

Publication date: September 2012   (Vol.14 No.9)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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